The impact of digital networks and massively available real-time information as the fundamental forces transforming the practice of contemporary public relations, according to 4,500 public relations professionals from 23 countries responding to the Cross Cultural Study of Leadership in Public Relations and Communication Management conducted by the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at The University of Alabama.
The new realities and consequences of the digital revolution underlie the four most important issues identified by nearly two-thirds of global respondents to the online survey: managing the volume and velocity of information (23.0 percent); the role of social media (15.3 percent; improving measurement (12.2 percent); and dealing with fast-moving crises (11.9 percent).
“We’re not surprised to find organizations racing to revise or create strategies to manage this revolution, but the mandate to develop meaningful measures of impact and value in a world that’s being transformed by data – that’s new,” says Bruce Berger, the study’s lead researcher, and the Reese Phifer professor of advertising and public relations at The University of Alabama.
“Some countries are moving faster than others, but across all geographies, one emerging story will be how this transformation affects leaders and their growing roles as information decision makers and interpreters.”
At the same time, the study, which was co-sponsored by IBM and executive search specialist Heyman Associates, reveals significant generational, gender and cultural variations within the profession, which is now as much as 70 percent female, with women ascending in greater numbers to leadership positions.
The most striking divides in the survey are the gaps between older and more experienced professionals and younger practitioners. Practitioners take a dimmer view of leadership performance within the PR function, the type and quality of leadership development, and the relative importance of the top issues facing the profession, and it was common for practitioners to rate the performance of the senior PR leader lower than they rated the CEO’s understanding of the role of communications.
Industry professionals under the age of 36 ranked issues like improving professional image and measurement of communication effectiveness much higher than older professionals. Younger and lower-level survey participants also ranked issues of social responsibility, transparency and diverse cultures higher than top leaders. Conversely, more senior, established leaders emphasized dealing with the speed and volume of information, crisis management or employee engagement.
Top-level leaders also rated the importance of digital media significantly higher than those at other levels, while practitioners who are typically more familiar with the application and implications of digital tools were more focused on “soft” skills or attributes — organizational culture, ethical orientation and work teams.
Female respondents rated significantly higher than men all seven dimensions of leadership, and rated four significantly higher: vision, work teams, ability to form coalitions and organizational culture. On the top issues facing the profession, women rated all 10 issues higher than men, and eight of them significantly higher, or more important. Women were also more optimistic about the future of the profession in many countries.
On the other hand, men were more bullish about the performance of the top communications leader in their organization, about the presence of two-way communication and the extent to which the CEO understood the value of public relations.
Interesting variations are also evident across the national, cultural and economic spectrum. The BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) ranked finding top PR talent and improving measurement as the top two issues. Practitioners in those countries, along with Mexico, were also more optimistic about the future of the profession.
China, India, Brazil and Mexico ranked management of the digital revolution of highest importance, while digital transformation was rated lowest in Estonia, Latvia and Russia. Measuring the outcomes and effects of social media also ranked much higher in Brazil, Mexico and Chile.
Participants in those three Latin American countries rated the issue of corporate social responsibility higher than their global counterparts, and Brazilian and Mexican professionals rated the issue of employee engagement higher than others. That same issue was ranked lowest in German-speaking countries, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States.
As public relations leaders continue to focus on training employees on digital media strategies and implementing the use of analytic technologies, they must also capitalize on technical advances to close organizational gaps among leaders, practitioners and global workforces.
Two significant future themes were consistently highlighted across countries. As communication leaders prepare for an uncertain future, efforts to develop new leaders should focus on:
1. “Soft” skills of individuals to increase self-insight and reflection – raising the empathy quotient of the profession as a core competency; improving interpersonal skills to manage change and conflict; and creating a greater sense of cultural awareness. All countries rated change management or conflict management skills the highest of 12 approaches to improvement.
2. Professional and educational structures that produce measurement skills and guidelines, ethical frameworks, and knowledge of economic and global environments in which they occur. Measurement skills and business knowledge were consistently highlighted.
These two factors underscore the shared view across all geographies for greater investment and attention to the development of leadership competencies along three dimensions: self-insight awareness, ethical orientation and corresponding core values and standards, and communication knowledge management.